June 28, 2012


Jascha Heifetz Plays Great Violin Concertos: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius, Bruch No. 1 and Scottish Fantasy, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev No. 2, Vieuxtemps No. 5, Rózsa, Mozart Nos. 4 and 5 and Sinfonia concertante, Glazunov, Brahms Double, Bach for Two Violins (BWV 1043), Vivaldi for Violin and Cello (RV 547). RCA. $19.99 (6 CDs).

Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky—The Ballets: L’Oiseau de feu, Scherzo à la Russe, Scherzo fantastique, Feu d’artifice, Petrushka, Le Sacre de printemps, Les Noces, Renard, Histoire du Soldat—Suite, Apollon musagète, Agon, Jeu de cartes, Scènes de ballet, Bluebird Pas-de-deux, Le Baiser de la fée, Pulcinella, Orpheus, Concert Suites from Petrushka, Pulcinella and L’Oiseau de feu. Sony. $20.99 (7 CDs).

      There is something of a cottage industry – more than a cottage industry, in fact – in the re-release of classical recordings from the many decades in which physical media (78-rpm and 33-rpm records, open-reel tape, audiocassettes, etc.) dominated listener experiences of music.  Many of these older analog performances are exceptionally fine, featuring musicians equal to or better than any playing today, and advances in sound reproduction have made it possible to clean up and improve the sometimes-pinched audio for an era in which digital recordings with very full sonic characteristics have become the norm.  Companies such as Brilliant Classics, ICA and Newton Classics have assembled entire catalogues of re-releases that range from the merely interesting to the really splendid, and other companies have delved into their vaults to find worthy older recordings that modern listeners may still find worthwhile.

      No company has more depth in its archives than Sony, and its decision to produce a line of well-priced boxed sets of outstanding re-releases of older recordings is a particularly welcome one.  Like other boxes of similar types, these are bare-bones productions, containing no liner notes or information about the music or artists other than movement timings and data about when each recording was made.  But the recordings themselves are so worthy, and in some cases so historically important, that they are highly valuable to have in any form.  The six-CD set of performances by Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) is a perfect example.  The Lithuanian-born violinist was one of the greatest violin virtuosi of all time, with absolutely astonishing technique whose precision was unequaled and whose intense tone quality was distinctive among performers of his generation, and indeed those of earlier and later ages.  Heifetz was so good that he made even the most difficult concertos seem like études, tossing off the complexities of Brahms or Sibelius as if they could be handled by a three-year-old (which Heifetz was when he started playing the violin).  There was a light, shimmering quality to his playing that was entirely consistent in all works – and was the sole significant weakness in his performances, since it tended to make Mozart sound rather too much like Bruch or Prokofiev.  He also tended to overshadow the conductors with whom he worked, and indeed ended up making recordings with some second-tier maestros rather than more-forceful ones.

      But although his playing can be nitpicked, it was magnificent, and hearing it is a genuinely uplifting and thoroughly remarkable experience.  Nearly every piece in the Heifetz retrospective on the RCA label is at the pinnacle of available versions of the music.  There is a poised, elegant Beethoven with the Boston Symphony and Charles Munch, from 1955; a tremendously exciting Tchaikovsky with the Chicago Symphony and Fritz Reiner, from 1957; a stately and surprisingly transparent Brahms, also with Reiner, from 1955; a dramatic Sibelius from 1959 that remains unsurpassed even though here the Chicago Symphony’s conductor, Walter Hendl, is a touch timid; a sweeping Bruch No. 1 with the New Symphony Orchestra of London and Sir Malcolm Sargent from 1962, not the best accompaniment but a highly involving performance nevertheless; and a simply splendid Mendelssohn, from 1959, again with Munch and the Boston Symphony.  Even the lesser concertos here – such as Vieuxtemps No. 5 (1961: Sargent again) and Rózsa (1956: Hendl conducting the Dallas Symphony) – have a high level of interest simply because Heifetz’ playing is so good that it elevates the works to as high a plane as they are capable of attaining.  The Mozart concertos are less satisfactory – Heifetz was scarcely steeped in Mozartean style – but the Sinfonia concertante, with William Primrose on viola (1956: Izler Solomon conducting the RCA Victor Symphony), is a joy even if it is not particularly idiomatic.  Likewise, two pairings of Heifetz with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky – the Brahms Double Concerto (1960: Alfred Wallenstein conducting the RCA Victor Symphony) and Vivaldi RV 547 (1964, with an unidentified chamber orchestra) – provide a remarkable chance to hear the interplay between two of the 20th century’s very best virtuosi, and are highly worthwhile on that basis even if the performances themselves have less-than-optimal accompaniment and (in the case of the Vivaldi) are not fully in touch with the music’s character.  All these recordings have been very well remastered, and the sound is more than adequate even though, understandably, it is not up to the best modern standards.  Having seven hours of Heifetz performances available in this boxed set is a great pleasure on all levels.

      There are eight hours of music in the seven-CD Stravinsky release, and this box on Sony’s own label is also a joy to have.  Whether Stravinsky (1882-1971) was the best possible interpreter of his own music is certainly arguable: The Peter Principle, which famously argued that people are promoted to their level of incompetence, even suggested that Stravinsky never reached that level as a composer but finally attained it as a conductor.  Certainly there are conductors who brought more fire, intensity and analytical precision to Stravinsky’s ballets than did the composer himself – Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez come immediately to mind – but there is no doubt that Stravinsky’s own readings have tremendous structural care and an understanding of the nuances of the music that leads to these recordings deservedly being labeled authentic.  Stravinsky did not leave behind recordings of all his ballet music – the Danses concertantes are missing – but this set is nevertheless highly valuable for the performances themselves as well as for the insight the recordings provide into how Stravinsky saw his works from the podium.  Petrushka and Le Sacre du printemps get more-straightforward readings here than elsewhere, coming across as more balletic and less like extended tone poems – an interesting approach, if one somewhat lacking in the high drama of other readings.  But Pulcinella is beautifully balanced, its roots in the 18th century quite clear; and the less-often-heard scores, such as Renard, Apollon musagète and Agon, come off quite well indeed, although there are no texts provided or offered online for the works that include vocal sections.  Most of the recordings were made with the Columbia Symphony or Columbia Chamber Ensemble, but Stravinsky did work with other groups as well: the CBC Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony all appear here.  The sound is variable and not, in truth, as good as in the Heifetz set: the remastering seems to have robbed it of some of its depth and richness, which were evident on the LPs on which these performances first appeared.  The earliest recording here, of Agon, dates to 1957, the year the ballet was written; the latest, of the Firebird suite, was made in 1967.  The time compression within a single decade means the performances are a very good summation of Stravinsky’s thinking about his ballet music toward the end of his life, and good examples of his podium abilities as well.  As a historical document, this Stravinsky set is unmatched and a must-have for fans of the composer – even though many people will likely want to supplement Stravinsky’s own versions of his ballets with ones made by other conductors.

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